Shoreline moms choose a home school alternative

01/05/2012

Since early last fall, four unrelated children—Skyla, Theo, Naima and Blu—have been gathering four days per week in each others’ West Marin homes to sample an inventive model of home schooling. The concept is fairly straightforward: each family is charged with instructing one day in whatever style it sees fit, forming a kind of cooperative of learning.

Since none of the parents are trained educators, they work with a regional charter school called Pathways, which is based in Rohnert Park. Pathways assigns a credentialed teacher to meet regularly with the families and discuss curriculum, answer questions and conduct student assessments to ensure each child is well on his or her way to meeting state standards.

According to the moms involved, the system, at least initially, is working extremely well.

Kegan Stedwell said that not only is her daughter, Skyla, spending copious hours outside hiking, sight-seeing and creating art, she is also becoming much more aware of her local surroundings. One day, for example, Skyla returned home from school and immediately began pointing out every hazelnut tree on the property. “And then we got to talking about when the nuts would be ready, and, you know, it just felt like she really got it,” Stedwell said.

All of the families prefer nature-based learning, emphasizing the importance of free play and tactile exploration. Beyond that core, each has organically developed a distinct subject-based specialty. Stedwell tends to focus on reading and writing through art and journaling. She also loves teaching geography, and urges the children to get in a bit of yoga before they leave at 3 p.m. “I have also started a short meditation class,” she said, “which was/is difficult but the kids are getting much better at it, actually.”

Simone Wild, another mom, described her individual style as “unschooling,” whereby a child is allowed to dictate the boundaries of his or her own learning. “It’s trusting that they are capable of learning on their own,” she said. “After all, they learn to walk and talk on their own.”

Wild, who dropped out of public school at an early age to travel—itself a sort of “unschooling”—is impressed by the developments she’s beginning to see in her son, Blu. “I think the biggest thing he’s learned is just real life stuff,” she said. “Like his abilities to connect with people and nature.”

The two obvious benefits, noted Molli Milner, a single mom from Inverness, are size and parental flexibility. “Four kids is not overwhelming, especially when you are not used to teaching,” she said. “And four kids are movable.” Milner, who runs an event planning business, said the cooperative system allows her to keep her job while ensuring that her son, Theo, has access to local, alternative-based education. “I couldn’t do it otherwise,” she said.

Milner said her specialty has somehow become math—“My son likes math, I suppose that’s why.” On her day, she starts by coaxing the children outdoors, to “get the wiggles out.” Then she’ll do any number of math-related activities, such as measuring or making artistic yardsticks or counting how many times certain letters appear in a book. “It’s been fun to learn how many moments are teachable moments,” she said.

Stedwell agreed. “One of the unexpected benefits of this home schooling adventure is the empowering effect in my family,” she said. “All the grandparents and people interacting with [Skyla] start to feel as though it’s school. My dad will take Skyla mushroom hunting and then come home and do a drawing, for instance. Or my step-mom, who owns a piano, teaches her to play. Everyone in the family is starting to step into a role.”

Field trips occur regularly. On Tuesday, for example, Stedwell piled the kids into her car and drove them to Larkspur, where they boarded a ferry for San Francisco and a day “of cable cars and museums.”

Local residents may remember Stedwell and another mom, Celine Underwood, for their effort last year to start a charter school in the area through a group called West Marin Alternatives in Education. A community meeting to discuss the idea was held in January, and Shoreline Unified School District later hired a consultant to assess the impacts that creating such a school would bring.

But the effort received pushback from several stakeholders, including parents concerned that a charter would drain resources and diversity from existing schools, and a petition to create the school never materialized. Home schooling presented itself as a secondary option. “It kind of fell together at the last minute, the notion of home schooling,” Milner said. “When the charter school idea fell away, everyone was like, ‘Well, what now?’”

“I think the reality of starting a new school and what that entails and the immediate needs of what we had, the immediate needs won over,” Stedwell said of the decision to pursue home schooling. “The priority of wanting something alternative and not wanting to ship our kids out of the area was the motivating factor.

“Plus, on my part, I just felt that starting a charter school in a climate of [funding] cuts, I was worried that the school would start under beleaguered auspices, and to me that is a high cost, not to mention that I felt it was going to be a conflict in the community.”

One of the components of the charter school idea was a dual-immersion program, whereby students would be taught in two languages. Underwood said the home schooling system will incorporate a second language starting this spring, when a Spanish class will be held weekly at the Point Reyes Presbyterian Church. The class is open to everyone, she said.

Underwood isn’t concerned that home schooling, at least at this age, will have a negative impact on her daughter Naima’s social development. “I think her social end is more than fulfilled,” she said. “In fact, that is one of the reasons I took her out of the public system. I see that as a social experiment—throwing kids together with very little supervision—and I think a lot of negative stuff comes from that.”

Stedwell is similarly unconcerned that Skyla will become socially impaired, but said she will be receptive to however her daughter chooses to learn down the road. “I can’t predict, but at some point she’ll want to come to the public school system and I’ll definitely support her,” she said. “I guess at this age, and even for first and second grade, there are just certain core things that I want to instill before she goes out in the mass media, mass commercialism-driven world.”

Meanwhile, Skyla and her compatriots seem to be enjoying the ride. “They run to school in the morning, and they don’t want to leave come three o’clock,” she said.